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April 28, 2009

Small Business, Small Food, Hands On

This is my first post. I’m in the food industry in Maine. I’m beginning my fourth season as a sternman aboard a Matinicus Island lobster boat. We are a small business, 2 people in an open boat.


We gather wild, healthy nourishment. There are no pesticides,fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, concentrated animal feedingoperations, runoff, bycatch mortality, deforestation, salmonella, e-coli, bad mojo or dress code violations involved.

The lobster season starts with gear work- mending and inspecting the 800 traps that will move from the back yard to the Steamboat Wharf to the boat to the bottom of Penobscot Bay. Gear work means stiff, sore fingers. Rusty wire. Millions of barnacles. Rotten oak runners on the bottoms of the traps. There are tools that help, but the work is done by hand, one trap at a time. Back to that in a bit.

Seals watch me working sometimes. They look as though they understand It, whatever It is. They also know how to float like a bottle and lounge in the water. Or they lay on the rocks at water’s edge. They’re never far from their lunch.

My lunch usually includes a grain bar of some kind. They’re great for the boat. Good energy to keep me zipping in the J shaped circuits I make around the back of the boat. Bars don’t fall apart and fall into the snail shells, crab legs, seaweed and fishbone soup on the deck.

The air inside the bar’s plastifoil wrapper swooshes out- probably confused to find itself mingling with salt breezes of the Gulf of Maine. This is because the energy bar’s world was one of stainless steel, computer controlled logistics and manufacture, precise identical measures of this or that grain, nut, sugar and flavoring compounds.

My place in the world food production milieu could not be more different. The production floor rolls and tilts and is covered in ocean debris. Each lobster and crab is picked out of a trap one at a time by hand. They are measured by hand. Rubber bands get put on the claws by hand. The beautiful and complex creatures are dropped into a tank of circulating salt water one at a time by hand. On lucky days, a few wind up in my kitchen and are picked apart by hand. Crabs claws get picked one joint at time. There is no pointing and clicking to get fresh crab meat. will never get that one down. ‘Cept possibly if they take online orders from my neighbors and I walk the stuff over myself. No bubble wrap needed.

By the time I’m picking the tasty bits from a lobster or crab shell in my kitchen, I’m more like the seal on the rocks than a food production worker. I’m a happy and somewhat thought-free member of my ecosystem. I’m also more respectful and appreciative of nature’s sacrifice. I’m closer to my environment and to the impact I have on it. My hands tell me so at the end of one day or the beginning of the next.

The island also offers cherries, berries, dandelion greens, apples, rosehips and probably a bunch of stuff I’ve yet to discover. The more my hands, food and environment are in close contact, the better off I think I am. I’m also better about washing up.

Nat Hussey lives on Matinicus Island. This week he is a sternman. At other times, he is an Ed Tech, attorney, and musician.


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